Travel is roaring back after two years of COVID restrictions, and many top tour companies and providers are setting records for bookings for later this year and well into 2023. In fact, the industry is so hot that some of the best trips are hard to book before next year, and even those are going fast.
But it’s not just “revenge travel,” or pent-up demand that’s changing the leisure travel paradigm, it is a fundamental shift in the way consumers view vacation time. Because we all learned – in very dramatic and unprecedented fashion – that you cannot be sure what is going to happen next, from pandemics to wars, and that life is short, many are taking more of a “now not later” approach to travel. According to luxury travel agents/advisors and industry experts I’ve spoken with, that means acting on those epic “Bucket List” type trips that were previously put off until “someday,” and skipping the average vacations to get to the once-in-a-lifetime ones sooner.
For that reason, the best tour companies, those operators that are high-end, luxury and specialized, across the board, are seeing huge surges in bookings, because they are the suppliers that typically offer these “World’s Best” kinds of trips consumers are suddenly craving. At the same time, since COVID, there has been dramatically more demand for smaller, more intimate, boutique everything in travel, from accommodations to tour groups to transportation. One other big travel trend that had begun pre-pandemic and is still going strong is the desire for experiential trips, those that go deeper and allow guests to learn something beyond how to get a suntan, known in the trade as “making memories.”
Trips of a lifetime, more exclusivity and more in-depth experiences are currently three of the biggest trends driving vacation selection, and now they all come together neatly and in very timely fashion thanks to a new partnership between two of the top companies in their fields, Smithsonian Journeys and Ponant Cruises.
We all know the Smithsonian Institution, the biggest name in museums, natural history and scientific research, For more than half a century, Smithsonian Journeys has been an educational outreach arm of the venerable Institution – through travel. It has a long and excellent track record of expert-led land, rail, river and sea travel to all seven continents, with over 300 trips per year. If you are a renowned scientist, professor or expert in a natural, cultural or historical field, working with the Smithsonian Institution is a dream job, and this gives the organization a huge slate of world-class guides to choose from for its trips, which always have experts leading them and an education emphasis focused on enrichment. At sea, Smithsonian Journeys has always focused on intimate ships that go where large mass-market cruises cannot and allow for easy, frequent disembarking to dive deep into the places they visit. The ships in turn are selected for quality of service and accommodations while offering single seating dining, plenty of open deck space, and desirable amenities from creature comforts to fitness facilities.
That brings us to Ponant.
Founded in 1988 by several French naval officers, it was the first French cruise line and has since built a stellar reputation by trying to make customers feel as if they are guests on a private yacht. The ships are modern, substantial and very well equipped, from spas to marinas for launching Zodiac inflatables, but are much smaller than the vast majority of cruise ships, which allows them to get to those places others cannot, including polar regions. This is coupled with the uniquely French flair in the form of luxury accommodations, service, multi-lingual crew and of course cuisine (think renowned Laduree macarons, the finest butter from Brittany and French wines). The line has won dozens of prestigious awards including titles like “Best Luxury Cruise Line For Adventure,” “Best Expedition Line,” and “Best Ocean Cruise Line Itineraries,” from the likes of Cruise Critic, Luxury Travel Magazine, Travel + Leisure, Travel Weekly, Time Magazine, British Cruise Awards, Conde Nast Traveler UK, and one of its itineraries made National Geographic Traveler’s “50 Tours of a Lifetime.”
It is also a very sustainability-focused travel company, and while there is a lot of lip service in this regard today, they put their money where their mouth is, from real actions and a detailed manifesto to the Ponant Foundation which protects ocean habitat and polar regions. They are partnered with National Geographic and Monaco’s Oceanography Institute, and hold numerous major international certifications including Cleanship and Cleanship Super for polar vessels, won France’s eco Blue Charter Trophy, and were the first European cruise line awarded the Green Marine label. They just launched the world’s first hybrid-electric polar expedition ship.
In the main fleet, four sister ships each have 132 staterooms – large hotel style, most with outdoor decks. There are 145 crew for a maximum of 264 guests, full spa, two restaurants, fitness center, theater, pool, exterior bar and multiple lounges and observation decks. Several slightly smaller but fully featured Explorer ships each have 92 rooms and suites all with private balconies, and the newest of these boast a unique undersea multi-sensory lounge so you can enjoy the sights and sounds of the ocean from inside the ship.
This is a new partnership that began this year, and already is seeing many sold out trips into 2023. Each sailing carries two Smithsonian Journey Experts, and in total there are 22 itineraries, each “designed to foster cultural immersion and discovery,” including an excursion or activity in every single port of call. According to Smithsonian, “Together, Smithsonian and Ponant offer a cruising experience that is enriching, designed to suit a range of interests, and deeply rewarding…the Ponant ships are designed to accommodate just 184 to 264 guests. And when you’re on shore excursions you’ll explore in small groups so that you can get up close to sites and experiences. The smaller ship size also allows Ponant to follow best practices for ecologically responsible tourism.”
They are also bargains in the luxury travel space, especially considering that they include all meals, all shore excursions and open bar onboard, as well as the expert guides, free Wi-Fi and airport transfers at both ends. Meals can be enjoyed in restaurants, al fresco on deck or through 24-hour room service. For example, an 8-day cruise through the currently ultra-desirable Greek isles starts at $5,130 per person, or around $650 a day, inclusive of luxury lodging and cuisine, activities, adult beverages and more. That’s hard to beat.
Experts assigned to the partnership include the likes of Franklin Knight, professor emeritus of history at Johns Hopkins University, an expert in Portugal and Spain; James Zimbleman, senior geologist emeritus at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum; and Gail Cornell, an architectural historian who teaches at New York University and is a lecturer in architecture, design and art at the Museum of Modern Art. Trips range from a Circumnavigation of Sicily to Cruising the Dalmatian Coast and Ionian Sea to destinations including Greece, Morocco, Italy London, Norway, Scotland, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Iceland, Canada, Panama, Costa Rica, the Caribbean, French Polynesia, the Middle East, Antarctica. Besides destination driven itineraries, there are also special occasion offerings such as a Solar Eclipse 2023 cruise from Indonesia to Australia, which in addition to astronomical viewing from a deserted location, includes visits with Komodo Dragons and a Zodiac trip through canyons to Australia’s towering King George Falls. An arctic Norway trip is designed around wildlife, including polar bears, as well as giant glaciers and ice floes. There is something for almost every taste and desired locale, but what they share, in addition to a surprisingly good value proposition, is first class leadership and hospitality.
As of today, only a few departures in fall of 2022 still have space available (Greek Islands; French Polynesia; Great Lakes; Galapagos; Spain & Portugal). The first quarter of 2023 is similarly tight, with five trips still offering bookings, and then more are available going forward, including six all new 2023 sailings. You can download the Smithsonian + Ponant brochure here.